Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein has had a huge impact on the horror genre and our culture, but few have taken the trouble to read it. The first part of the novel is narrated by Robert Walton, an arctic explorer who encounters Victor Frankenstein in the far north. I’ve edited the text to make it more approachable by modern readers, removing some of the quaint literary devices (the early chapters are presented as a series of letters and journal entries) and modernizing the language.
This derivative work is under copyright. Please do not reproduce it without my permission.
Chapter 1 – St. Petersburgh
I am already far north of London, and as I walk in the streets of St. Petersburgh, I feel a cold northern breeze play upon my cheeks, which braces my nerves and fills me with delight. Do you understand this feeling? This breeze, which has traveled from the regions towards which I’m advancing, gives me a foretaste of those icy realms. Inspired by this wind of promise, my daydreams become more intense and vivid. I try in vain to be persuaded that the north pole is the seat of frost and desolation, but it always presents itself to my imagination as a region of beauty and delight.
There, the sun is always visible, its broad disk just skirting the horizon and diffusing a perpetual splendour. If previous navigators are to be believed, snow and frost are banished, and, sailing over a calm sea, we may be wafted to a land that surpasses in wonders and beauty every region discovered on the habitable globe today. Its products and features may be unprecedented, as the heavenly phenomena undoubtedly are in those undiscovered solitudes. What might not be expected in a country of eternal light? I may discover the wondrous power which attracts the needle of the compass, or regulate a thousand celestial observations that require only this voyage to render their seeming eccentricities consistent forever.
I shall satisfy my passionate curiosity with the sight of a part of the world never before visited, and may even tread lands never before trodden by man. These are my enticements, and they are sufficient to conquer all fear of danger or death and to induce me to commence this laborious voyage with the joy a child feels when he embarks in a little boat, with his holiday friends, on an expedition of discovery up his native river. Even if all these conjectures are false, you cannot contest the priceless benefit which I shall confer on all mankind, for all generations to come, by discovering an arctic passage to those countries that at present require so many months to reach; or by discovering the secrets of magnetism, which, if even possible, can only be learned on an undertaking such as mine. These reflections have dispelled the agitation with which I began my journey, and I feel my heart glow with an enthusiasm which elevates me to heaven.
Nothing contributes so much to mental tranquillity as much as a steady purpose, a point on which the mind may fix its intellectual eye. This expedition has been the great dream of my early years. I read with enthusiasm the accounts of the various voyages which have been made in hope of arriving at the North Pacific Ocean through the seas which surround the pole. A history of all of these voyages of discovery composed the whole of my good Uncle Thomas’ library. My education was neglected, yet I was passionately fond of reading. I studied these volumes day and night, and my familiarity with them increased the regret that I felt, as a child, when I learned that my father’s dying injunction was to forbid my uncle to allow me to embark on a seafaring life.
Those early visions faded when I read, for the first time, poets whose unrestrained expression entranced my soul and lifted it to heaven. I became a poet and for a year lived in a paradise of my own creation. I imagined that I might obtain a place in the temple where the names of Homer and Shakespeare are consecrated. After my failure, how heavily I bore my disappointment. But just at that time I inherited my cousin’s fortune, and my thoughts returned to their earlier channel.
Six years have passed since I decided on my present undertaking. Even now, I remember the hour on which I dedicated myself to this great enterprise. I began by accustoming my body to hardship. I accompanied whalers on several expeditions to the North Sea. I voluntarily endured cold, famine, thirst, and lack of sleep. I often worked harder than the common sailors during the day and devoted my nights to the study of mathematics, medicine, and those branches of science from which a naval adventurer might derive the greatest practical advantage. Twice, I actually hired myself out as an under-mate on a Greenland whaler, and acquitted myself admirably. I must admit I felt a little proud when my captain offered me the second position on the vessel and asked me to remain with the greatest sincerity, so valuable did he consider my services.
Don’t I deserve to accomplish some great purpose? My life might have been passed in ease and luxury, but I preferred glory to every enticement that wealth placed in my path. Oh, if only some encouraging voice would answer yes! My courage and my resolution is firm, but my hopes fluctuate, and my spirits are often depressed. I am about to proceed on a long and difficult voyage, the emergencies of which will demand all my strength. I am required not only to raise the spirits of others, but sometimes to sustain my own, when theirs are failing.
This is the most favourable season for travelling in Russia. They fly quickly over the snow in their sledges. The motion is pleasant; in my opinion, far more agreeable than that of an English stagecoach. The cold is not excessive if you are wrapped in Nenet clothing, which I have already adopted. There is a great difference between walking the deck and remaining seated motionless for hours, without exercise to prevent the blood from actually freezing in your veins. I have no wish to lose my life on the road between St. Petersburgh and Arkhangelsk. I shall depart for the town of Arkhangelsk in two to three weeks, and I intend to hire a ship there, which can easily be done by paying the insurance for the owner, and to hire as many sailors as I think necessary among those who are accustomed to whaling. I do not intend to sail until June. When shall I return? Ah, how can I answer this question? If I succeed, many, many months, perhaps years, will pass. If I fail, it will be soon, or never.
Chapter 2 – Arkhangelsk
How slowly the time passes here, encompassed by frost and snow! Yet I’ve taken a second step towards my enterprise. I have hired a vessel and am occupied in collecting my sailors. Those who I have already engaged appear to be men who I can depend on, and certainly possess dauntless courage.
I have one desire which I’ve been unable to satisfy, and which I now feel as a most severe regret: I have no friends. When I am glowing with the enthusiasm of success, there will be no one to participate my joy. If I am assailed by disappointment, no one will try to sustain me in dejection. I’ll commit my thoughts to paper, it is true, but it is a poor medium for communicating feeling. I desire the company of a comrade who can sympathize with me, whose eyes will reply to mine. You may think me romantic, but I bitterly feel the desire for a friend. I have no one close to me, gentle yet courageous, with a large, cultivated mental capacity whose tastes are like my own, to approve or amend my plans. How such a friend would compensate for my faults! I am far too eager for action and too impatient with difficulties.
It is a still greater fault that I am self educated: For the first fourteen years of my life, I ran wild in the country and read nothing but Uncle Thomas’ books of voyages of exploration. I became acquainted with the celebrated poets of my own country, but it was only when it had ceased to be in my power to derive the most important benefits from them that I saw the necessity of becoming acquainted with more languages than my own. I am now twenty-eight, but I am truly more illiterate than many schoolboys of fifteen. It is true that I have thought more than most, and that my daydreams are more extensive and magnificent, but they need to be kept in check. I greatly need a friend who would have sense enough not to despise me as a romantic, with affection enough for me to try to regulate my mind.
Well, these are useless complaints. I shall certainly find no friend on the wide ocean, nor even here in Arkhangelsk, among the merchants and seamen. Yet some feelings, unrelated to the lowest part of human nature, beat even in these rugged hearts. My lieutenant, for instance, is a man of wonderful courage and enterprise. He madly desires glory and advancement in his profession. He is an Englishman, and in the midst of national and professional prejudices, unsoftened by cultivation, retains some of the noblest endowments of humanity. I first became acquainted with him on board a whaling vessel. Finding that he was unemployed once he reached this city, I easily engaged him to assist in my enterprise. The man is a person of an excellent disposition and is remarkable among the crew for his gentleness and the mildness of his discipline. This, added to his well known integrity and dauntless courage, made me greatly desire to hire him. My youth passed in solitude, and my best years spent under the gentle and feminine care of my sister Margaret, has so formed the groundwork of my character that I cannot overcome an intense distaste for the usual brutality exercised on board ships. I have never believed it to be necessary, and when I heard of a mariner equally noted for his kindliness of heart and the respect and obedience paid to him by his crew, I felt myself oddly fortunate in being able to secure his services. I heard of him first in a rather romantic manner, from a lady who owes him the happiness of her life. This, briefly, is his story:
Some years ago he loved a young Russian lady of moderate fortune, and, my lieutenant having amassed a considerable sum of money as a dowry, the father of the girl consented to the match. The lietenant saw his mistress once before the destined ceremony. She was bathed in tears, and throwing herself at his feet, entreated him to spare her, confessing that she loved another, but that he was poor, and that her father would never consent to their union. My generous friend reassured her, and, on being told the name of her lover, instantly abandoned his pursuit. He had already bought a farm with his money on which he had planned to pass the remainder of his life, but instead he gave it all to his rival, together with what was left of his money to purchase livestock, and then himself asked the young woman’s father to consent to her marriage with her lover. The old man refused, thinking himself honour bound to my friend. When he found the father inexorable, he left the country, and did not return until he heard that his former fiancee had been married according to her wishes. He is a noble fellow, but is wholly uneducated. He is as silent as a Turk, with a kind of ignorant carelessness which, while it renders his conduct the more astonishing, detracts from the interest and sympathy which he would otherwise command.
Do not suppose that because I complain a little or because I can conceive a consolation for my toils which I may never know that I am wavering in my resolution. That is as fixed as fate, and my voyage is only delayed until the weather permits me to embark. The winter has been dreadfully severe, but the spring promises to be good, and it is considered to have come remarkably early, so that perhaps I may sail sooner than I expected. I shall do nothing rashly; I am always prudent and considerate whenever the safety of others is committed to my care.
I cannot describe my sensations as the prospect of my undertaking nears. It is impossible to communicate the trembling sensation, half pleasurable and half fearful, with which I am preparing to depart. I am going to unexplored regions, to “the land of mist and snow,” but I shall kill no albatross. I shall be safe and I shall not come back as worn and woeful as the “Ancient Mariner.” I will tell you a secret. I have often attributed my attachment to and my passionate enthusiasm for the dangerous mysteries of ocean to that very work by the most imaginative of modern poets. There is something at work in my soul that I do not understand. I am practical and industrious, a painstaking workman who executes with perseverance and effort, but I also have a love of the marvellous, a belief in the marvellous, intertwined in all my projects, which rushes me out of the common pathways of men, to the wild sea and unvisited regions I am about to explore.
Will I return, after traversing the vast oceans, by the most southern cape of Africa or America? I dare not expect such success, yet I cannot bear to look on the reverse of the picture. Remember me with affection, should you never hear from me again.
Chapter 3 – Trapped in Ice
We had departed safely and were well advanced on our voyage when we rendezvoused with an English merchantman on its homeward voyage from Arkhangelsk. Her captain considered himself more fortunate than I, who may not see my native land, perhaps, for many years. I am, however, in good spirits: my men are bold and apparently firm of purpose, nor do the floating sheets of ice that continually pass us, indicating the dangers of the region towards which we are advancing, appear to dismay them. We have already reached a very high latitude, but it is the height of summer, and although not so warm as in England, the southern gales, which blow us speedily towards those shores which I so strongly desire to attain, breathe a degree of renovating warmth which I had not expected.
In the firsts weeks of the journey, no incidents befell us that bear remarking on. One or two stiff gales and the springing of a leak are accidents which experienced navigators scarcely remember to record, and I would have been content if nothing worse happened to us during our voyage. For my own sake, I do not seek to rashly encounter danger. I am cool, persevering, and prudent, but success shall crown my endeavours. Why not? I have come this far, tracing a secure way over the pathless seas, the very stars themselves being witnesses and testimony to my triumph. Why not proceed over the untamed yet obedient element? What can stop the determined heart and resolved will of man?
Yet such a strange incident has occurred that I cannot forbear recording it. Last Monday (July 31st) we were nearly surrounded by ice, which closed in on the ship on all sides, scarcely leaving her the space in which she floated. Our situation was somewhat dangerous, especially as we were surrounded by very thick fog. We accordingly lay to, hoping that some change would take place in the atmosphere and weather.
At about two o’clock, the mist cleared away, and we beheld a vast and irregular plain of ice, stretched out in every direction, which seemed to have no end. Some of my comrades groaned, and my own mind began to grow watchful with anxious thoughts. Then a strange sight suddenly attracted our attention and diverted our concern from our own situation. We saw a low carriage, fixed on a sled and drawn by dogs, pass us, travelling northward, at a distance of half a mile. A being shaped like a man, but of gigantic stature, sat in the sled and guided the dogs. We watched the rapid progress of the traveller with our telescopes until he was lost among the distant inequalities of the ice. This excited our unqualified wonder. We were, we had believed, hundreds of miles from any land. This apparition seemed to denote that it was not actually as distant as we had supposed.
Shut in by the ice, it was impossible to follow his trail, though we had observed it with the greatest attention. About two hours later, we heard the ocean swell, and before night, the ice had broken up, freeing our ship. We lay to until the morning, fearing to encounter one of the large, loose masses that floated about after the breaking up of the ice in the dark. I profited from this time to rest for a few hours.
In the morning, as soon as it was light, I went upon deck and found all the sailors busy on one side of the vessel, apparently talking to someone in the water below. Looking over the side, I saw a sled like the one we had seen the day before. It had drifted towards us in the night on a large fragment of ice. Only one dog remained alive, but there was a man in the sled, and my sailors were persuading him to board our vessel. He was not, as the other traveller had seemed to be, a savage inhabitant of some undiscovered island, but a European.
“Here is our captain. He will not let you perish on the open sea.” the master said when I appeared on deck.
On seeing me, the stranger addressed me in English, although with a foreign accent.
“Before I come on board your vessel,” he said, “will you have the kindness to inform me where you are bound?”
You can imagine my astonishment on hearing such a question from a man on the brink of destruction, to whom I would suppose that my vessel would have been a resource that he would not have exchanged for the most precious wealth the earth can afford.
“We are on a voyage of discovery towards the north pole,” I replied.
Upon hearing this, he appeared satisfied and consented to come on board. Good God! If you had seen the man who so capitulated for his safety, your surprise would have been boundless. His limbs were nearly frozen, and his body dreadfully emaciated by fatigue and suffering. I had never seen a man in so wretched a condition. We carried him into the cabin, but as soon as he had left the fresh air, he fainted. We brought him back to the deck and restored him to animation by rubbing him with brandy and forcing him to swallow a small quantity. As soon as he showed signs of life, we wrapped him up in blankets and placed him near the chimney of the kitchen stove. By slow degrees he recovered and ate a little soup, which restored him wonderfully.
Two days passed before he was able to speak, and I feared that his suffering had deprived him of reason. When he had recovered in some measure, I moved him to my own cabin and attended to him as much as my duties would permit. I have never known a more interesting person. His eyes have an expression of wildness, even madness, but there are moments when, if anyone performs an act of kindness for him or does him the most trifling service, he lights up with beaming benevolence and sweetness that I have never seen equalled. But he is generally melancholy and despairing, and sometimes he gnashes his teeth, as if impatient with the weight of troubles that oppresses him.
Once my guest had partly recovered, I had great trouble keeping the men away. They wanted to ask him a thousand questions; but I wouldn’t allow him to be tormented by their idle curiosity, when his body and mind’s restoration obviously depended upon complete rest. Once, however, the lieutenant asked him why he had come so far upon the ice in so strange a vehicle. His face instantly assumed an aspect of the deepest gloom.
“Seeking one who fled from me,” he replied.
“And did the man whom you pursued travel in the same fashion?” I asked.
“Yes,” he replied.
“Then I guess we have seen him, for the day before we picked you up we saw some dogs drawing a sled, with a man in it, across the ice.”
This aroused the stranger’s attention, and he asked many questions concerning the route which the demon, as he called him, had pursued. Soon after, when he was alone with me, he spoke.
“No doubt I have excited your curiosity, as well as that of your crew, but you are too considerate to make enquiries.”
“You certainly have,” I said, “but it would be inhumane of me to trouble you with questions before you have fully recovered.”
“And yet you rescued me from a strange and perilous situation, and you have benevolently restored me to life,” he said.
Soon after this he enquired if I thought that when the ice had broken up, the other sled had been destroyed. I replied that I could not answer with any degree of certainty, for the ice had not broken until near midnight, and the traveller might have reached a place of safety before that time, but this I could not judge. From that time on, a new spirit of life has animated the decaying frame of the stranger. He is most eager to be upon deck to watch for the sled that we saw previously, but I have persuaded him to remain in the cabin, for he is far too weak to sustain the raw cold of the air. I have promised that someone will keep watch and notify him immediately if any new object should appear in sight.
The stranger has gradually improved in health, but is very quiet and appears uneasy when anyone except me enters his cabin. His manners are so conciliatory and gentle that the sailors are all interested in him, although they have had very little communication with him. For my own part, I have begun to think of him as a brother, and his constant and deep grief fills me with sympathy and compassion. He must have been a noble creature in his better days, being, even now after all he has been through, so attractive and amiable. I thought that I wouldn’t find a friend on the wide ocean, yet I have found a man who, before his spirit had been broken by misery, I would have been happy to have made the brother of my heart.
Chapter 4 – Unlooked for Friendship
My affection for my guest increases every day. He engenders both admiration and pity to an astonishing degree. How can I watch such a noble man destroyed by misery without feeling the deepest grief? He is so gentle, yet so wise. His mind is so cultivated, and when he speaks, although his words are chosen with careful art, they flow rapidly and with unparalleled eloquence. He has now mostly recovered from his illness and is continually on deck, apparently watching for the sled that preceded his own. Yet, although unhappy, he is not so utterly occupied by his own misery that he does not become deeply interested in the projects of others.
He has frequently conversed with me on my own, which I have disclosed to him openly. He listened attentively to all my arguments in favour of my eventual success and to the minute details of the measures I have taken to secure it. I was easily led by the sympathy which he showed to open my heart, and speak of the burning desire of my soul and how, with all the intensity that drove me, I would gladly sacrifice my fortune, my existence, and my every hope, to further my enterprise. One man’s life or death would be a small price to pay to acquire the knowledge which I seek, and the dominion I will acquire and transmit over the elemental foes of our race. As I spoke, a dark gloom spread over my listener’s face. At first, he tried to suppress his emotions. Then, he placed his hands over his eyes, and my voice quivered and failed me as I saw tears trickle from between his fingers. A groan burst from his heaving chest. I paused, and at length he spoke, in his broken accent.
“You poor, unhappy man!” he exclaimed. “Do you share my madness? Have you also drunk the intoxicating draught? Hear me; let me tell my tale, and you will dash the cup from your lips!”
His words strongly excited my curiosity. But the paroxysm of grief that seized the stranger overcame him in his weakened state, and many hours of rest and tranquil conversation were needed to restore his composure. Having overcome the violence of his feelings, he appeared to despise himself for being the slave of his passions. Quelling the dark tyranny of despair, he led me again to speak of myself. He asked me about my earlier years. My tale was quickly told, but it awakened various trains of reflection. I spoke of my desire to find a friend, of my thirst for a more intimate sympathy with a fellow mind than I had ever had, and expressed my conviction that a man without friends will have little happiness.
“I agree with you,” replied the stranger. “We are unfinished creatures, only half formed, unless one wiser, better, dearer than ourselves, as a friend ought to be, helps to perfect our weak and faulty natures. I once had a friend, the most noble of human creatures, and feel entitled, therefore, to judge regarding friendship. You have hope, and your life before you, and have no cause for despair. But I have lost everything, and cannot start over again.”
As he said this his face was filled with a calm, settled grief that touched my heart. He was silent and presently retired to his cabin.
Even broken in spirit as he is, no one could feel the beauties of nature more deeply than he does. The starry sky, the sea, and every sight to be seen in these wonderful regions seem to have the power of elevating his soul. Such a man lives a double existence: he may suffer misery and be overwhelmed by disappointments, yet when he has retreated into himself, he will be like a celestial spirit with a halo around him within whose circle no grief or foolishness goes.
Do you smile at the enthusiasm I express concerning this divine wanderer? You would not if you saw him. I have endeavoured to discover what quality he possesses that elevates him so immeasurably above every other person I have ever known. I believe it to be his intuitive discernment, a quick but never failing power of judgement, and the ability to penetrate to the causes of things, unequalled in clearness and precision. Add to this a facility of expression and a voice whose varied intonations are like soul subduing music.
“As you can clearly see, Captain Walton, I have suffered great and unparalleled misfortunes,” said the stranger. “I had determined that the memory of these evils should die with me, but you have convinced me to change my mind. You seek knowledge and wisdom, as I once did, but I truly hope that the gratification of your wishes will not be a serpent to bite you, as mine has been. I do not know whether telling you of my disaster will be useful to you. Yet, since you are pursuing the same course, exposing yourself to the same dangers which have rendered me what I am, I imagine that you will deduce an apt moral from my tale, one that may direct you if you succeed in your undertaking and console you in case of failure. Prepare to hear of events which anyone would call incredible. If we were among the tamer scenes of nature, I fear you wouldn’t belief, and perhaps even ridicule me. But many things appear possible in these wild and mysterious regions which would provoke the laughter of those unacquainted with the ever varied powers of nature. As well, my tale conveys by its own consistency evidence of the truth of the events of which it is composed.”
You may easily imagine that I very grateful for his offer to tell his story, yet I could not bear that he would renew his grief by telling me of his misfortunes. I felt the greatest eagerness to hear the tale, partly from curiosity and partly from a strong desire to improve his fate if it were in my power. I expressed these feelings in my answer.
“I thank you, for your sympathy,” he replied, “but it is useless; my fate is almost complete. I wait for only one event, and then I will die in peace. I understand your feeling,” he continued, perceiving that I wished to interrupt him, “but you are mistaken, my friend, if you will allow me to call you that. Nothing can alter my destiny. Listen to my story, and you will see how irrevocably it is determined.”
He told me that he would begin his narrative the next day when I was at leisure. I thanked him warmly. I have resolved every night, when I am not out of nescessity occupied by my duties, to record, as nearly as possible in his own words, what he has related during the day. If I should be busy, I will at least make notes. This manuscript will doubtless afford you the greatest pleasure, but to me, who knows him, and hears it from his own lips–with what interest and sympathy I will read it on some day in future! Even now, as I commence writing, his full-toned voice swells in my ears. His lustrous eyes dwell on me with all their melancholy sweetness. I see his thin hand raised in animation, while the features of his face are irradiated by the soul within him.
His story must be strange and harrowing. A frightful the storm it must have been to embraced so gallant a vessel on its course and wrecked it so!
Chapter 5 – The Stranger’s Tale
I was born in Geneva, and my family is one of the most distinguished in that canton. My ancestors had been counsellors and government officials for many generations, and my father held several public offices with honour and a good reputation. He was respected by all who knew him for his integrity and tireless attention to public business. In his youth, he was continuously occupied by the affairs of his country. A variety of circumstances prevented his marrying early, and it wasn’t until the end of his life that he became a husband and the father of a family.
As the circumstances of his marriage illustrate his character, I cannot refrain from relating them. One of his most closest friends was a merchant who, though once flourishing, fell, through numerous misfortunes, into poverty. This man, whose name was Beaufort, was proud and unbending and could not bear to live in poverty and oblivion in the same country where he had formerly been distinguished for his rank and magnificence. Having honourably paid his debts, he retreated with his daughter to the town of Lucerne, where he lived unknown in wretchedness. My father loved Beaufort with the truest friendship and was deeply grieved by his retreat in these unfortunate circumstances. He bitterly deplored the false pride which made his friend so unworthy of the affection that united them. He lost no time in seeking the man out, with the hope of persuading him to begin making his way the world again using my father’s credit and assistance.
Beaufort had taken effective measures to conceal himself, and it was ten months before my father discovered his friend’s new home. Overjoyed at the discovery, he hastened to the man’s house, which was on a mean street near the Reuss. When he entered, nothing but misery and despair welcomed him. Beaufort had saved only a very small sum of money from the wreck of his fortunes, just enough to provide him with sustenance for some months. In the meantime, he had hoped to procure some respectable employment in a merchant’s house. The interval was, consequently, spent in inaction. His grief only became more deep and rankling because he had time for reflection, and at length it took so a strong hold of his mind that at the end of three months he lay sick in bed, incapable of any exertion.
His daughter attended him with the greatest tenderness, but she saw with despair that their little fund was rapidly decreasing and that there was no other prospect of support. But Caroline Beaufort possessed an uncommon mind, and her courage rose to support her in her adversity. She procured plain work, plaiting straw, and by various means contrived to earn a pittance scarcely sufficient to support life.
Months passed in this manner. Her father grew worse. Her time was almost entirely occupied in attending him. Her means of subsistence decreased, and in the tenth month her father died in her arms, leaving her an orphan and a beggar. This final blow overcame her, and when my father entered the chamber, he found her kneeling by Beaufort’s coffin, weeping bitterly. He came like a protecting spirit to the poor girl, who committed herself into his care. After the interment of his friend, he brought her back to Geneva and placed her under the protection of a relation. Two years later, Caroline became his wife.
My parents differed considerably in age, but this seemed to unite them even more closely in bonds of devoted affection. There was a sense of justice in my father’s upright mind which made it necessary that he must approve highly to love strongly. Perhaps during his earlier years he had suffered from the late discovered unworthiness of one he had loved and so was disposed to set a greater value on tried worth. There was gratitude and worship in his attachment to my mother, differing wholly from the doting fondness of age because it was inspired by reverence for her virtues and a desire to, to some degree, compensate for the sorrows she had endured, which gave inexpressible grace to his behaviour toward her. Everything was made to yield to her wishes and her convenience. He strove to shelter her, as a exotic flower is sheltered by the gardener, from every rougher wind and to surround her with all that could excite pleasure in her soft and benevolent mind. Her health and the tranquillity of her hitherto constant spirit had been shaken by what she had gone through. During the two years that elapsed prior to their marriage, my father gradually relinquished all his public functions. Immediately after their marriage, they sought the pleasant climate of Italy, and the change of scene and interest attendant on a tour through that land of wonders, as a restorative for her weakened frame.
From Italy they visited Germany and France. I, their eldest child, was born at Naples, and as an infant accompanied them in their rambles. For several years I remained their only child. Much as they were attached to each other, they seemed to draw inexhaustible stores of affection from a very mine of love to bestow them upon me. My mother’s tender caresses and my father’s smile of benevolent pleasure while regarding me are my first recollections. I was their plaything and their idol, and something better: their child, the innocent and helpless creature bestowed on them by heaven to bring up to be good, and whose future it was in their hands to direct to happiness or misery, depending on how they fulfilled their duties towards me. With this deep consciousness of what they owed towards the being to which they had given life, added to the active spirit of tenderness that animated both, every hour of my infant life was a lesson of patience, of charity, and of self control. I was guided by a silken cord that seemed one long train of enjoyment to me.
For a long time I was their only care. My mother greatly desired to have a daughter, but I continued to be their only child. When I was about five years old, while making an excursion into Lombardy, they passed a week on the shores of the Lake of Como. Their benevolent disposition often led them to visit the cottages of the poor. This was more than a duty to my mother: it was a necessity, a passion, due to her memory of what she had suffered, and how she had been relieved, to act in her turn the guardian angel to the afflicted. During one of their walks a poor cottage in the folds of a valley attracted their notice as being singularly disconsolate, while the number of half-clothed children gathered about it spoke of extreme destitution.
One day, when my father had gone by himself to Milan, my mother, accompanied by me, visited this house. She found a peasant and his wife, hard working, bent down by care and labour, distributing a scanty meal to five hungry babes. Among these there was one which attracted my mother far above all the rest. The girl appeared to be of different stock. The four others were dark-eyed, hardy little vagrants; this child was thin and very fair. Her hair was the brightest living gold, and despite the poverty of her clothing, seemed like a crown of distinction on her head. Her brow was clear and ample, her blue eyes cloudless, and her lips and the shape of her face so expressive of sensibility and sweetness that none could behold her without looking on her as being of a distinct species, heaven sent and bearing a celestial stamp on all her features.
The peasant woman, seeing that my mother fixed eyes of wonder and admiration on the lovely girl, eagerly told her story. She was not her child, but the daughter of a Milanese nobleman. Her mother was German, and had died giving her birth. The infant had been placed with these good people to nurse when they were better off. They had not been married long, and their eldest child was but just born. The father of their charge was an Italian nursed on the memory of the ancient glory of Italy, one of the rebels, the schiavi ognor frementi, who worked to obtain the liberty of his country from Austria. He became the victim of its weakness. Whether he had 0died or still lingered in an Austrian dungeon, she did not known. His property had been confiscated, and his child became an orphan. Living with her foster parents, she bloomed in their rude home, fairer than a garden rose among dark-leaved brambles.
When my father returned from Milan, he found me in the hall of our villa playing with a child fairer than a cherub, a creature who seemed to shed radiance and whose form and motions were lighter than the chamois, the goat-like antelope of the hills. Her appearance was soon explained. My mother had prevailed on her rustic guardians to yield their charge to her. They were fond of the sweet orphan–her presence had seemed a blessing to them–but it would be unfair to her to keep her in poverty and want when providence could afford her such powerful protection. They consulted their village priest, and the result was that Elizabeth Lavenza came to live in my parents’ house as my more than sister, the beautiful and adored companion of all my passtimes and pleasures.
“I have a pretty present for you, Victor,” my mother had said playfully in the evening before Elizabeth was brought to my home. “Tomorrow you shall have it.”
When she presented Elizabeth to me as her promised gift the next day, I, with childish seriousness, interpreted her words literally and looked upon Elizabeth as mine; mine to protect, love, and cherish. Everyone loved her. The passionate and almost reverential attachment with which all regarded her became, while I shared it, my pride and delight. All praises bestowed on her I took as being made to my possession. We called each other ‘cousin’. No word, no expression could describe the relationship in which she stood to me; my more than sister, since til death she was to be mine alone.
Chapter 6 – Victor’s Childhood
We were brought up together. There was just less than a years difference in our ages. We never had any disunion or dispute. Harmony was the soul of our companionship, and the diversity and contrast of our characters drew us closer together.
Elizabeth was calmer and more concentrated, but, with all my ardour, I was capable of more intensity and was more deeply smitten with the thirst for knowledge. She busied herself with the aery creations of the poets and the majestic and wondrous scenery which surrounded our Swiss home: the sublime shapes of the mountains, the changes of the seasons, tempest and calm, the silence of winter, and the life and turbulence of our Alpine summer. She found plenty to admire and delight in.
While my companion contemplated the magnificent appearances of things, I delighted in investigating their causes. To me, the world was a secret that I wanted to understand. Curiosity, earnest research into the hidden laws of nature, rapturous happiness as they unfolded to me, were among the earliest sensations I can remember.
When my brother, seven years younger than me, was born, my parents gave up their wandering life entirely and settled down in their native country. We owned a house in Geneva, and a cottage in Belrive on the eastern shore of the lake, more than three miles from the city. We mainly lived in the cottage, which was fairly secluded. I preferred to avoid crowds and to form strong attachments to a few.
I was mostly indifferent to my schoolmates, but I formed the closest friendship with one of them. Henry Clerval was the son of a merchant in Geneva. He was a boy of singular talent and imagination. He loved enterprise, hardship, and even danger for its own sake. He had read books of chivalry and romance extensively. He composed heroic songs and began to write tales of enchantment and knightly adventure. He tried to make us act out plays and masquerade as characters drawn from the heroes of Charlemagne, the knights of the Round Table of King Arthur, or the chivalrous crusaders who shed their blood to retake the holy sepulchre from the infidels.
No one could have had a happier childhood than I did. My parents were very kind and indulgent. They were not tyrants ruling us according to their whims, but were rather the agents and creators of the many delights that we enjoyed. When I mingled with other families, I saw how peculiarly lucky I was, and gratitude helped me to develop love for my family.
My temper was sometimes violent, and my passions strong, but by some quirk of my temperament, they were turned not towards childish pursuits but to learning, though not to learn all things indiscriminately. Neither the structure of languages, the laws of governments, nor politics held attraction for me. I wanted to learn the secrets of heaven and earth. Whether it was the substance of things or their inner nature and the mysterious soul of man that occupied me, I inquired into the physical and metaphysical secrets of the world.
Meanwhile, Henry occupied himself with the moral relationships between things. The busy stages of life, the virtue of heroes, and the actions of men were his interests, and he hoped and dreamt of becoming one whose name was recorded as a gallant and adventurous benefactor of our species.
The saintly soul of Elizabeth shone like a holy lamp in our peaceful home. Her sympathy was ours. Her smile, her soft voice, and the sweet glance of her celestial eyes, were always there to bless and animate us. She was the living spirit of love. I might have become sullen in my study, or rough through my passionate nature, but she was there to subdue me to a semblance of her own gentleness. And Henry? Could anything bad impact his noble spirit? Yet he might not have been so perfectly humane, so thoughtful in his generosity, so full of kindness and tenderness amidst his passion for adventurous exploit, had Elizabeth not unfolded to him the real loveliness of goodness and made the doing good the aim of his soaring ambition.
I feel exquisite pleasure dwelling on my memories of childhood, before misfortune tainted my mind and changed its bright vision of usefulness into gloomy and narrow reflection upon myself. In drawing the picture of my early days, I’m also recording the events that led, by unnoticed steps, to my later tale of misery. When I try to account for the birth of the passion that later ruled my destiny, I find it arose, like a mountain river, from ignoble and almost forgotten sources. Swelling as it proceeded, it became the torrent that swept away all hope and joy in its path.
Natural philosophy was the genius that ruled my fate. I’ll try to explain what led to my preference for it. When I was thirteen years old, we went to the baths near Thonon. Bad weather forced us to remain in the inn for a day. In this house, I happened to find a volume of the works of Cornelius Agrippa. I opened it with apathy, but the theories that he attempted to demonstrate and the wonderful facts that he related soon made me enthusiastic. A new light dawned in my mind and, bounding with joy, I told my father of my discovery. He looked carelessly at the title page of the book.
“Ah! Cornelius Agrippa!” he said. “My dear Victor, don’t waste your time on this. It is sad trash.”
If, instead of saying this, my father had taken the time to explain that the principles of Agrippa had been entirely debunked and that modern science possessed much greater power than the ancient, because its powers were real and practical, I would have thrown Agrippa aside and contented my imagination, warmed as it was, by returning with greater ardour to my studies. It is even possible that my train of thought would never have received the fatal impulse that led to my ruin. But the cursory glance my father had taken of the volume by no means assured me that he was acquainted with its contents, so I continued to read it avidly.
When I returned home, my first act was to study the complete works of this author, and afterwards those of Paracelsus and Albertus Magnus. I read and studied the wild fancies of these writers with delight. They appeared to be treasures known to few besides myself. I have always fervently longed to penetrate the secrets of nature. In spite of the intense labour and wonderful discoveries of modern philosophers, I always came away from my studies discontented and unsatisfied. Sir Isaac Newton is said to have said that he felt like a child picking up shells on the shore of the great and unexplored ocean of truth. His successors in every branch of natural philosophy that I knew anything about appeared, even to my boyish understanding, to be novices engaged in the same pursuit.
An ignorant peasant beholds the elements around him understands their practical uses. The most learned philosophers knew little more. They had partially unveiled the face of Nature, but her immortal characteristics were still a wonder and a mystery. A scientist might dissect, anatomize, and name the parts, but their causes remainded utterly unknown to him. I had gazed upon the fortifications and impediments that seemed to keep human beings from entering the citadel of nature, and rashly and ignorantly I had resisted them.
Here were books by men who had penetrated deeper and knew more. I took their word for all that they asserted, and became their disciple. It may seem strange that I should do so in the eighteenth century, but while I was given a routine education in the schools of Geneva, I was, to a great degree, self taught in my favourite studies. My father was no scientist, and I was left to struggle with a child’s blindness, added to my student’s thirst for knowledge. Under the guidance of my new preceptors I began to search diligently for the philosopher’s stone and the elixir of life. The latter soon gained my undivided attention.
Wealth was an inferior. What glory would come with the discovery if I could banish disease from the human frame and render man invulnerable to any other than a violent death! Nor was this my only vision. The ability to raise ghosts and devils was promised liberally by my favourite authors, something which I most eagerly sought. When my incantations were unsuccessful, I attributed the failure to my own inexperience and mistakes rather than to a lack of accuracy in my instructors. For a time I was occupied by exploded systems, unadeptly mingling a thousand contradictory theories and floundering desperately in a mish-mash of knowledge, guided by ardent imagination and childish reasoning, til an accident changed the current of my ideas.
When I was about fifteen years old and we had returned to our cottage in Belrive, we witnessed a most violent and terrible thunderstorm. It advanced from behind the mountains of Jura, and the burst with frightful loudness from all quarters of the heavens. I watched the storm’s progress while it lasted, curios and delighted. As I stood at the door, I suddenly saw a stream of fire come from a beautiful old oak that stood twenty yards from the house. As soon as the dazzling light vanished, I saw that the oak had disappeared; nothing remained but a blasted stump. The next morning, we found the tree shattered. It was not splintered by the shock, but entirely reduced to thin splinters of wood. I’d never seen anything so utterly destroyed.
I already knew the more obvious laws of electricity. A great researcher in natural philosophy was with us and, excited by this catastrophe, he began explaning a theory of his about electricity and galvanism, which was both new and astonishing to me. Everything he said greatly debunked Cornelius Agrippa, Albertus Magnus, and Paracelsus, the lords of my imagination.
After the overthrow of these men, I ceased my accustomed studies. It seemed as though nothing would or could ever be known. Everything that had once caught my imagination suddenly grew despicable. I gave up my former preoccupation, natural history, as a deformed and aborted creation, and held the greatest disdain for would-be science that couldn’t even step across the threshold of real knowledge. In this mood, I took to mathematics and the branches of science built on secure foundations, and worthy of consideration.
Our souls are so strangely constructed, and we are bound by such flimsy ligaments to prosperity or ruin. Looking back, it seems that my miraculous change of inclination and will was suggested by the guardian angel of my life, the last effort of the spirit of preservation to avert the storm that was hanging in the stars and ready to envelop me. Unusual tranquility and gladness followed my relinquishing my ancient and formerly tormenting studies. I was to learn to associate evil with their prosecution, and happiness with their disregard.
It was a strong effort by the spirit of goodness, but it was ineffectual. Destiny was too powerful, and her immutable laws had decreed my utter and terrible destruction.
Chapter 7 – The University of Ingolstadt
When I turned seventeen, my parents decided to send me to the university of Ingolstadt. Untell then, I’d attended school in Geneva, but my father thought that for the rest of my education, I should be acquainted with other customs than those of Switzerland. My departure was set well in advance, but before the day arrived, the first misfortune of my life occurred–an omen of my future misery. Elizabeth caught scarlet fever; her illness was severe, and she was in great danger. My mother had been persuaded to refrain from tending her. When she heard that the life of her favourite was in jeopardy, she could no longer contain her anxiety. She sat beside Elizabeth’s sickbed, and her watchful attentions triumphed over the fever.
Elizabeth was saved, but my mother’s imprudence was fatal. After three days, mother sickened; her fever was accompanied by the most alarming symptoms, and the looks of her medical attendants boded the worst. On her deathbed, her fortitude and benignity did not desert her. She joined Elizabeth and my hands.
“My children,” she said, “my greatest hope of future happiness was placed on your union. This will now be the consolation of your father. Elizabeth, my love, you must take my place for my younger children. I regret that I am taken from you. Happy and beloved as I have been, it is still hard to leave you all. But these are not thoughts befitting me; I will try to resign myself cheerfully to death and hope to meet you in another world.”
She died calmly, her expression affectionate even in death. I won’t describe our feelings as our dearest ties were rent by that most irreparable evil, the void that filled our souls, and the despair plain on our faces. It took so long to accept that she, who we had seen every day and whose existence seemed a part of our own, could have departed forever, the brightness of her beloved eyes extinguished and the sound of her voice, so familiar and dear to us, never more to be heard. When the passing of time proved the reality her death, the bitterness of grief began. Who hasn’t had some dear connection rent by the rude hand of death? Must I describe a sorrow that all have felt, and must feel? Eventually grief becomes an indulgence rather than a necessity, and a smile that plays upon the lips, although it may be seen as sacrilege, is not banished. My mother was dead, but we had still duties to perform; we must go on and learn to think of our fortune that we remain.
My departure for Ingolstadt, which had been delayed by mother’s death, was once more deided upon. I obtained a respite of several week from my father. It seemed sacrilege so soon to leave the house in mourning and rush back into the thick of life. I was new to sorrow and unwilling to leave the sight of those that remained to me, and above all, I wanted to console my sweet Elizabeth.
Elizabeth hid her grief and tried to comfort to us all. She took life head on, assuming its duties with courage and eagerness, devoting herself to those she called her uncle and cousins. She was so enchanting as at this time, bringing back the sunshine of her smiles and spending them on us. She even forgot her own regret in her efforts to make us forget.
The day of my departure finally arrived. Clerval spent the last evening with us. He had tried to persuade his father to let him accompany me and become my fellow student, but in vain. His father, a narrow-minded trader, saw idleness and ruin in the aspirations and ambition of his son. Henry felt deeply unfortunate to be denied a liberal education. He said little, but when he spoke I read in his sparkling eye and in animated glance a restrained but firm resolve not to be chained to a miserable life of commerce.
We sat up late. We couldn’t tear ourselves away from each other or persuade ourselves to say the word “Farewell!” Then it was said, and we went to bed, pretending to seek sleep, each imagining that the other was fooled. At dawn, when I descended to meet the carriage that was to take me away, they were all there, my father to bless me, Clerval to shake my hand once more, and Elizabeth to renew her entreaties that I write often, bestowing her last feminine attentions on her playmate and friend.
I threw myself into the carriage that was to convey me away with the most melancholy thoughts. I, who had always been surrounded by amiable companions who continually sought our mutual pleasure, was now alone. At the university, I must form my own friendships and be my own protector. Til now, my life had been remarkably secluded and domestic, giving me an invincible dislike for new faces. I loved Elizabeth and Clerval–these were “old familiar faces”–but I felt totally unsuited to the company of strangers.
As my journey proceeded, my spirits and hopes rose. I eagerly wanted to acquire knowledge. At home, in my youth, I had often found it hard to remain cooped up in one place and had longed to go out into the world and take my place among others. Now my wishes were granted, and it would have been foolish to regret them. I had plenty of time for these and many other reflections during the long and tiring journey to Ingolstadt. Finally, I saw the high white steeple of the town. I got out and was conducted to my solitary apartment to spend the evening as I pleased.
The next morning, I delivered my letters of introduction and visited some of the principal professors. Chance—or rather the evil influence, the Angel of Destruction, which held omnipotent sway over me from the moment I reluctantly left my father’s door—led me first to M. Krempe, a professor of natural philosophy. He was a rude man, but had deep understanding of the secrets of his science. He asked me several questions concerning my progress in the different branches of science pertaining to natural philosophy. I replied carelessly and contemptuously named my favourite alchemists as the principal authors I had studied. The professor stared at me.
“Have you really spent your time in studying such nonsense?” he asked.
“Yes,” I replied.
“Every minute,” Krempe said warmly, “every second that you’ve wasted on those books is utterly and entirely lost. You have burdened your memory with exploded systems and useless names. Good God! What desert land have you lived in, where no one was kind enough to tell you that these imaginings that you have so greedily imbibed are a thousand years old and as antiquated as they are ancient? I never expected, in this enlightened and scientific age, to find a disciple of Albertus Magnus and Paracelsus. My dear sir, you must begin your studies entirely anew.”
He stepped aside and wrote down a list of books on natural philosophy he wanted me to acquire, and dismissed me after mentioning that in the beginning of the following week, he intended to begin a course of lectures on natural philosophy, and that M. Waldman, a fellow professor, would lecture upon chemistry on the alternate days.
I wasn’t disappointed, and returned to my room. I had long considered the authors who the professor condemned to be useless, but I felt no more inclined to return to these studies in any from. That M. Krempe was a squat little man with a gruff voice and a repulsive face did not influence me in favour of his pursuits. I had come to conclusions about them in my early years. As a child, I had not been content with the results promised by the modern professors of natural science. With a confusion of ideas due to my extreme youth and lack of guidance, I had retraced the steps of knowledge along the paths of time and exchanged the discoveries of recent inquirers for the dreams of the forgotten alchemists. I had a contempt for modern natural philosophy. When the masters of science had sought immortality and power, although futile, it had been grand. Now the ambition of the inquirer was limitted to the annihilation of those visions on which my interest in science was founded. I would be required to exchange chimeras of boundless grandeur for realities of little worth.
I spent the first few days of my residence at Ingolstadt getting acquainted with the localities and the principal residents in my new home. As the week started, I thought about what M. Krempe had said about the lectures. Though I would not consent to go and hear that little conceited fellow, I remembered what he had said of M. Waldman, whom I had never seen, as he had been out of town.
Partly out of curiosity and partly idleness, I went to the lecturing hall, and M. Waldman entered shortly after. This professor was very different from his colleague. He was about fifty years old, with a look of great benevolence. A few grey hairs covered his temples, but the hair on the back of his head was nearly black. He was short but stood remarkably straight, and his voice was the sweetest I had ever heard. He began his lecture with a recap of the history of chemistry and the discoveries made by different men, pronouncing the names of the most distinguished with intensity. He gave a cursory view of the present science and explained many of its elementary terms. After demonstrating a few experiments, he concluded by elaborately praising modern chemistry that I will never forget.
“The ancient teachers of this science,” he said, “promised impossibilities but delivered nothing. The modern masters promise very little; they know that metals cannot be transmuted and that the elixir of life is a chimera, but these philosophers, whose hands seem only made to dabble in the dirt, and whose eyes pore over the microscope or crucible, have indeed performed miracles. They penetrate into the recesses of nature and show how it works in its hiding-places. They ascend into the heavens. They have discovered how blood circulates, and the nature of the air we breathe. They have acquired new and almost unlimited powers. They can command the thunder of heaven, mimic an earthquake, and even mock the invisible world with its own shadows.”
Such were the professor’s words—the words of fate—articulated to destroy me. As he continued, I felt as if my soul was grappling with a palpable enemy. One by one, the various keys that formed my being were touched. Chord after chord was struck, and soon my mind was filled with one thought, one idea, one purpose. So much has been done, my soul exclaimed; I will achieve more, far more. Following the steps already taken, I will pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold the deepest mysteries of creation to the world.
I did not close my eyes that night. My being was in a state of rebellion and turmoil. I felt that order would soon arise, but I had no power to produce it. Slowly, after dawn, sleep came. I awoke, and my night’s thoughts were like a dream. Only the resolution to return to my old studies and to devote myself to the science that I believed I possessed a natural talent for remained.
That same day, I paid M. Waldman a visit. His manners in private were even more mild and attractive than in public. A dignity in his demeanour during his lecture was replaced by the greatest affability and kindness in his own house. I gave him the same account of my former pursuits I had given to his fellow professor. He listened with attention, smiling at the names Cornelius Agrippa and Paracelsus, but without the contempt that M. Krempe had exhibited.
“These were men to whose untiring zeal modern philosophers were indebted for the foundations of their knowledge. They had left us, as an easier task, the naming and arranging in connected classifications the facts which they had been instruments of bringing to light. The labours of men of genius, however erroneously directed, scarcely ever fail in ultimately being to the solid advantage of mankind.”
I listened to his statement, which was delivered without any presumption or affectation, and then replied that his lecture had removed my prejudices against modern chemists. I expressed myself in measured terms, with the modesty and deference due from a youth to his instructor, without showing any of the enthusiasm that I had for my intended labours. I asked his advice about which books I ought to purchase.
“I am happy,” said M. Waldman, “to have gained a disciple. If your will to apply yourself equals your ability, I have no doubt of your success. Chemistry is the branch of natural philosophy in which the greatest advances have and may yer be made. This is why I’ve made it my specialty. But at the same time, I have not neglected the other branches of science. A man would make a very sorry chemist if he only studied that department of human knowledge. If you wish to become a man of science and not merely a petty experimenter, I advise you to apply to every branch of natural philosophy, including mathematics.”
He then took me into his lab and explained the uses of various machines, telling me what I ought to buy and promising me the use of his own equipment when I had advanced enough that I wouldn’t damage it. He also gave me the list of books which I had requested, and I took my leave.
This ended a day that is memorable to me because it decided my future destiny.
Frankenstein’s backstory continues next. If you enjoyed this excerpt, please leave a like or a comment. When I’ve finished further sections, I’ll publish them here, and may create a low cost version for Kindle in future.